Investigation into acclaimed teacher includes sexual abuse allegations
Craig Clough | June 26, 2015
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The investigation by LA Unified officials into acclaimed elementary school teacher Rafe Esquith includes allegations that he sexually abused a child 40 years ago.
Esquith, a best selling author who has also received national awards and media attention for his work at Hobart Avenue Elementary School, was removed from the classroom in April in response to a complaint that he made a joke about nudity while referencing Mark Twain. His removal from the classroom made headlines around the country this week after his attorney, Mark Geragos, announced plans for a lawsuit.
The abuse allegations, reported yesterday by the Los Angeles Times, stem from Esquith’s time working at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles during the 1970s. A man, Marc Bennett, who is now 49, claims he was physically and sexually abused by Esquith at the center when he was 8 or 9 and Esquith was a teenager.
“At that point in my life my parents had been divorced. Rafe was charismatic and I looked up to him a bit as kind of a father figure,” Bennett told the Times. “I had a fair amount of adoration for him, but it was this really weird thing where it was full of humiliation and a lot of fear. It was very chaotic.”
Bennett, who reportedly lives in New York City, reached out to police about a decade ago with his accusations, and also wrote a letter to a LA Unified school board member but cannot remember which one, according to the Times, which also said LA Unified officials interviewed Bennett this week.
Geragos denied the accusations to the Times.
Earlier this week, Geragos filed a legal claim that included a detailed account of Esquith’s experiences since he was removed from the classroom. It stated that the district expanded its inquiry beyond the Mark Twain incident to include his work with the Hobart Shakespeareans, his nonprofit that raises money for his students to put on Shakespeare plays. The document makes no mention of Bennett or his accusations.
The legal claim, which names LA Unified and Superintendent Ramon Cortines as defendants, includes a portion in which Esquith describes aggressive tactics and questions posed to him by district investigators characterized as having “no conventional interview protocol or any appropriate or logical line of questioning.” Esquith said he was asked about college girlfriends, teachers who may not like him and if he had ever bought food for a student.
One question in particular listed in the claim is: “Were you ever counseled for pushing someone when you were a camp counselor at the JCC Jewish Center Summer Camp you worked at when you were a teenager 40 years ago?” It’s unclear if the question is related to the sexual abuse allegations.
The legal claim states an intention to attack LA Unified’s policy of not just investigating an original misconduct claim against a teacher, but how the investigations expand into the teacher’s full background. It also characterized the district’s policy of not informing teachers of allegations against them while investigations drag on for months as depriving them of due process rights. The policy was amended in the recent contract that the LA Teacher union, UTLA, signed with the district in April.
Jose Cantu, the supervisor of LA Unified’s Student Safety Investigative Team, which examines sexual abuse allegations, outlined the policy to LA School Report in January. Even when a teacher has been cleared by a police or legal investigation, the district will investigate the teacher for any possible violations of district policy, which is a reason why district investigations sometimes continue for months even when a police or outside investigation has concluded.
In statements to the the media, Geragos pointed out that a state investigation had cleared Esquith of the Mark Twain allegations, which was part of his demand that the district reinstate Esquith or face a lawsuit. It is unclear if Geragos or Esquith were aware of the sexual abuse allegations at the time the legal claim was filed.
Esquith has been described as “the world’s most famous teacher” by the Washington Post and has been the subject of numerous national media profiles, including by Time magazine, People and CBS.